Friday, October 27, 2017

Notes on Prayer

You know, some folks might say I've got a lot of goddamned nerve talking about prayer. I think they're right. I'm far from reverent, miles from righteous, a lifetime away from holy. I cuss too much, I make inappropriate jokes, like a few beers and loud music and rough lyrics. I anger too quickly, love too deeply, sadden at the drop of a tear.

In other words... I'm human.

I am an animal, zoologically speaking. We all are.

We forget that. We forget that deep under all this intellect and cleverness there shivers a frightened animal ready to fight or flee. We forget that our gluttony and lust and jealousy and rage are the animal in us. The fact of this is inconceivably... simple - just look in the mirror.

We forget, also, of Grace. There is a love, undeserved and true, that lifts us out of that bestial legacy and anchors us firmly to our imagination, intelligence and integrity. And there? Science, art, romance, literature, philosophy, physics. All because, somehow, we said as one humanity, there is more to this than than those evolutionary "Four Fs" (fighting, fleeing, feeding and, uh, mating).

Now, somewhere, between the two, perhaps at the very crossroads of the two, is where I often find myself. I think this is from where we pray.

I am being presumptive, aren't I? I am tempted to go up there and change all the "we"s to "I"s and apologize for proselytizing so. I won't though. I believe we all pray. I believe we all feel that endless love I call Grace. I believe we all feel it so deeply we cry out at it in praise and wonder and anger and hope.

That's just me. It helps me to think we share that in common, even if it is not true, and it certainly may not be. True that is.

The Language Arts assignment was simple, a tribute essay. An opening, some paragraphs of body, a closing, a quote, a word count. Later the essay would become a speech to share with the rest of the class. All and all, a worthy assignment.

One boy decided to do his on a parish priest he knew who had passed away from cancer a while back. He'd taken it hard, harder than he'd let on, but he'd also drawn a certain inspiration from the event. He'd given it a great deal of consideration and that shows in the essay, the details of which aren’t necessary here - suffice to sat they are sweet and tender, heartfelt and little sad.

He chose his quote from a book about a would-be prophet turned martyr, The New Testament, in a chapter called simply, Luke. In a story about mothers, births and wonder: "For with God nothing shall be impossible " A bold choice, perhaps a little out of context, but... He opened the essay with the quote and began his speech the same.

He is practicing the oral essay with his mom at a table. He begins too quickly, gets tongue-tied, loses his place and becomes frustrated. In the past he's been good at speeches. He mentions this and is assured that it might be harder this time because it is so close, so personal. He agrees and tries again.

Again he begins too quickly. His father, lingering in the kitchen pretending to be wiping counters, listens. He wonders if the boy is perhaps embarrassed by the quote, reluctant to cite scripture, as so many are. He dismisses the thought, knowing that it is really about himself. The boy struggles through the whole thing. His mother encourages but he seems dejected and worried about it.

From the kitchen, the father, thinking finally of the boy, suggests that the quote is really a sort of prayer. If in God all things are indeed possible then the speech should be no problem.

The boy thinks this may be true. He tries again and is much better, much more fluid, much more confident. He finds the rhythm of the words and is engaged. He is storytelling, which is always a kind of prayer. The words he'd written become more real, he speaks of "his own Spiritual journey" and seems to sense that he is in the middle of it, doing it, right now. The change is remarkable.

The boy is surprised. The mother smiles tenderly and tells him she knew he could do it.

Back in the kitchen, the father shakes his head in wonder and whispers, So did God...

The brother of the novice sojourner, listening this whole time, is in the same class. He's chosen as the subject of his tribute... his brother. His essay is also sweet and tender, heartfelt and little sad.

That's about all for today, or not...

I rarely pray from my knees. Most often it is from my heart. I don't use many set prayers - although I could suggest dozens to you. I don’t twist beautiful beads or light incense - you're right, I do have a thing for candles. I do like sacred places, beautiful chapels, churches and cathedrals and have prayed in many. I've had little success with trying to pray at certain times or on a particular day.


The truth is, I do pray from my knees when I set a fire in my hearth, the kindling and logs my words, flame my inspiration. I pray on my knees with a baby on a blanket, each coo and murmur an amen.

I don't pray from my heart all the time, that's too difficult and I am not that strong yet. More often I pray from my mind. I ask for things. I cajole and barter and act the sycophant. I pray from my spleen, lashing out, vitriolic. I pray from my shoulders and arms, legs and feet, pleas for relief, that the journey is too hard and wearying. I pray from my gut, sometimes so empty and lonely, sometimes just and right.

In my head I whisper a set prayer many times a day. I'll teach it to you.

"Thank you God."

It doesn't need an amen.

It's true that I don't hold rosaries or icons in my hands. But I've prayed holding so many other things. Sticks and cigarettes, silver bound gemstones, a rock with a hole in it. A feather, a worn pair of shoes, tiny stained and worn sweatshirts, old sheets. A book or a bottle, both. A scrapbook, a frame, a phone, a photograph. Dirt. Tears. Heads. Hearts. Hands...

I don't scent with sandalwood or frankincense, but I do with garlic, syrup and brown butter.

I do love to pray in sacred places and I've seen so many. Like the NICU of a hospital called Christ. A tent, cold and wet. A livingroom, this one and ones remembered. A bunk-bedded bedroom. A stage, a bar, a break room, a closet. Great forests and stone quarries, jumbled city streets and jetliners.

I also do say prayers at specific times. The morning prayer that is simply lifting myself up and into the day to come. The one that I always say to the subtle dawn or outrageous sunset. The one I shout back at thunder. The one that is simply closing my eyes and drifting towards sleep.

I don't mean to sound preachy or even evangelical. I won't invoke the name of a savior, or issue born-again promises. I'm not urging you to lift your thoughts upward, that isn't what matters. I don't care if you want to pray or not, from my perspective, you already are. We all are.

Peace and thanks for sticking around. I’m embarrassingly uncomfortable talking about my own Spiritual journey, over the years that's not always gone over so well. But, if a boy can, than surely I can keep at it.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Safe. We. Are.

He sits between twin little boys, maybe three, maybe four.  They are huddled together in a little pop-up camper not for warmth, but for fear.  A thunderstorm rages and cracks, just outside the canvas walls and fiberglass roof.

A typical Ohio valley summer storm, but it is after dark and that intensifies the drama.  He's seen them before, sat through them on porches and in tents and barns.  He knows it will pass.  He feels...

"Are we safe, Dad?"

"Define safe," he thinks to himself.  They are not on a high ridge, not exposed, the camper is supposed to mitigate a direct lightning hit.  The rain is hard but not coming in anywhere, the wind is gusting and the canvas, well-made and dependable, holds strong.

He knows they are afraid of the noise, the cacophony that is hard rain on a fiberglass roof; afraid of the unmuffled thunder; afraid of the foreboding lightning.  He feels they are "safe."  But they are young, they haven't spent a some fifty years weighing the odds.  They haven't come through mountain thunderstorms, too close tornadoes, roiling sailboats, blinding blizzards safely.  They are afraid because they've no evidence that they will be okay.

"Let's shove your sleeping bags and your bear and kitty into this trash bag and we'll make a run to the truck where I know we will be safe."  He grabs a towel and shoves it in as well.  He waits for a flash and a crack and runs ahead of them, throwing open the doors, and the hustle in.

They are wet and cold, even in summer the rain can seem so icy.  The boys dry off and bundle up in the blankets, hugging their little stuffed animals.  The car starts, the heat and defrost blow.  The windshield wipers clear away the sheeted rain.  They are in the middle of it.  Trees blowing, leaves and sticks fall to the pavement.  The lightning is much brighter, sharper and cleaner.  The thunder and rain are muffled better in the vehicle but still loud.

He worries that this all will scare them more and turns in his seat to assure them.  They are both smiling in wide-eyed wonder at the energy and crazy beauty of the storm.

"Thanks, Daddy, I feel safe now."

Her eyes are puffy, his nose is snotty.  A school bus approaches and two second grade boys spill out.

"Oh, God, those poor children were the same age as these boys, my sons," she thinks as they laugh and spin towards the couple.  It is a bright and pretty December day, the fourteenth, 2012.

"I can't do this," he says to her as they approach.

"We have to."

And they do, at the dining room table, inside their home, on their street, in their community.  They tell them the incomprehensible.  They speak vaguely of a crazy man, a school, boys and girls shot and killed.  They avoid words like 'slain' and 'automatic rifle' and 'Glock' and try to tell them the untellable.  They try not to cry.  They try not to break.

When they are done, when have finished saying what the had to say, they wait.

One boy says, "Are we safe.'

"Oh yes, sweetheart," she says through the tears which can no longer be dammed.  They hug their dear sons, hold them too tight, perhaps scaring the young souls in a way they may wonder about for a lifetime.  They look over the blonde heads into each others wet eyes and both wonder the same thing,  "Are we lying to them?"

Some five years later, the bus again, older boys, young men, mancubs, get off the bus.

"Hey Dad, did you hear about that crazy dude who shot a bunch of people in Las Vegas?"

"Yeah, I did.  I shoulda told you about it this morning.  I'm sorry I didn't..."

"What the frick is up with people like that?" one boy asks shaking his head.

"Yeah, I don't get it.  Who could be that, that... mean?"  The other boy this time.

They continue on in and sit at the same table, in the same dining room, on the same street, in the same community.  They talk of mental health, of evil, of gun control.  They speak of the "helpers" (thank you, Mr. Rogers) of police and firefighters and panic and - God help us - what to do in an "active shooter" situation, which they've already discussed in detail - God help us, again.  They imagine scenarios, scenes, situations and wonder how they might react.

It is a horrible and necessary conversation.

When it is over he asks, "Are you okay, boys?"

"Yeah," they sigh together, defeated, their armor cracked but somehow intact.

"Dad," one says quietly.  He hesitates, perhaps afraid to ask, afraid to be answered.  "Are we safe?"

I am silent...

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

I Had a Bad Day

I had a "bad day" yesterday.

I remember when Nick was in first or second grade he came home one day long in the face.  One of the very special things about young boys - children in general, I'd guess - is the sleavedness of their emotions.  I asked him what the matter was and he answered, simply and quietly, "I had a bad day."

I pressed a little, maybe to see if something big was bothering him, you know, bullying, workload pressure, math problems, the ever looming proficiency tests that seem so important but aren't.  I guess I wanted to fix, to make better, to solve.  I know better than that, I really do, but little souls are so damn vulnerable.

"I just had a bad day, Dad!"

Yep, sometimes that's all that needs to be said.  I reckon he did all the figuring in his head, understood where the day failed him, knew why his day was bad.  And that's the whole of it, don'tcha think?  Understanding why your day was bad?  I think inherent in a young, growing mind is a concept that, embarrassingly, eludes me sometimes - Hope.  Nick knew better days would come.  In fact, if I'd had cupcakes or cookies or salami or pie at the ready, I could have quickly made his day good again.  I'd bet after his bath, in cozy pajamas, reading a chapter of Narnia or whatever we were reading aloud that evening, he probably forget all about his bad day.

But, this morning I was still hanging on to mine.  Oh, I try not to let it trickle down to Marci and the boys, I mean, it's not like something awful happened yesterday, in fact much more awfuler things happen all the time.  No, it was far more selfish than that.

For instance yesterday I played a set of maybe ten or twelve songs on the old Alvarez, new Ernie Ball strings a-janglin'.  It's a little known fact that artists and craftsmen and hobbyists and enthusiasts must work on their thing - "practice" we call it.  Honestly, I sounded good, didn't make too many mistakes, nailed a couple of  Slaid Cleves songs I've been struggling with.  It was a good session.

But for some reason, as I cased up my guitar, I wondered why I go to the effort?  No one hears me, really - occasionally my family, a couple times in firepit season around a campfire for some friends, a few Christmas carol singalongs, that's about it.  Yesterday, I couldn't help but seriously think that if I shelved the guitars away for good, well... nobody'd even notice.

I've been doing some writing lately.  I'd guess you wouldn't know it as the tumble weeds roll over the crickets on this blog, but I have been.  I've been working on longer stuff - memoir style pieces, longer short stories and fiction, some songs and even some prayers - all of which take cajoling and tweaking and mistaking and deleting.

Yesterday, I was working on a story about my own seventh grade year of school as the boys start theirs.  Well, the phone kept ringing, the text kept blooping, the chores kept interrupting.  I considered driving over to the old Junior High school I went to in the seventies, now an administration building, and bullshitting my way in and taking a tour of the old place, smelling it and tasting it, realigning myself to the perspectives of size and time.  But, all I could think was if I go out I'll need to stop by the library and Nick needs reeds and I'll have to get some groceries and then the timer went off and the boys would be home soon and I'd better this and that and the other thing and... I shut down the computer.

And, I choked back a sob as I did.  It felt like I was casing up my thoughts, boxing them.  I thought, well, maybe that's where they belong.  Boxed.  Stored.  Offcast.  Sequestered.  Abandoned.  I know this feeling well.  I've let go a lot of dreams and wondered if this was another.  Somewhere in one of the Corinthians in the book labeled "King James" it says:  When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Yeah, but what defines a "childish thing?"  And, perhaps if we all "understood as a child" this world might...

But, it still echoes in my mind, this verse and I often feel childish, writing and singing into the wind, into the trees and ashes and dust.  Perhaps, aside they should be put.

This morning, I was making breakfast and packing lunches.  I'd purposefully avoided opening FB or The Post on my phone, I could think of nothing better to make a bad day worse, and, well, I wanted to have a better day today.  I did register, as one will do these days, that I had a new email.

After the boys left, without any real forethought, as if instinctively, I grabbed my coffee and opened my phone and just before I opened FB I saw that email notification again, and, risking spam or more things to put on the new whiteboard calendar we've had to hang as times get busier, I opened it.

It was a note from a writer friend of mine who said he was looking through my archives (only available on the desktop version of this site) and stumbled upon a couple of posts he very much liked. Well, that alone was enough to make me glance over at the pile of boxed memories and dreams I'd just yesterday set aside.

It is a silly little post from my first year of blogging - actually, my eighth piece ever - that exactly forty-seven people have seen.  It's called, complicatedly, Inexplicable Instructions and Flow Charts.  He used words like "clever" and "wise" and "meaningful."  I'd not thought of it in years but remembered being pretty proud of it when I wrote it.  It did exactly what I was trying to do back in those early days.

He said he'd jumped to it from another post he'd seen called "Simple Gifts." He called that post "purposeful" and "sweet."  The boxes rumbled a bit.  My friend said other nice things, said I'd been supportive and kind to him, he said I'd influenced him in his early days, said he'd hoped to have as clear a purpose as I had.  He said that I had a sense of...  not really the point, Bill.

I needed his encouragement this morning, I really did.  I had to get to an early morning oil change appointment for my truck, so I showered and headed out.  I put a box on the table as I left, no dust was on them, yet.

The repair shop is next to a coffee shop in my old home town of Mason so I walked on over there to wait for the truck to be done.  The place is a local place, not a soulless Starbucks, and I walked in the front and through I few rooms set like living-rooms, and headed to the counter.  I ordered my extra-bold with heavy cream and sugar and, well, I heard an accordion. Yes, you read that right.  And then... a banjo.  And then, some sort of percussion and what seemed to be another, or was it two, accordions warming up.

The shop, Kidde Coffee, has a sort of sun-room patio out the back door, where they have live music of an evening.  In fact, I've played a couple open-mics there in the recent past.  I opened the door and what to my wondering eyes did I see?  An accordion band.  Three older guys on the ivories, a very wizened Gandolf looking dude on cowbells and washboard, and a guy maybe my age claw-hammering a five-string.

At, 7:55 in the morning, of a Wednesday.  Well, once I became accustomed to the sight, I took a seat at a table a ways away.  I mean, what else mattered at this point.  They were bantering back and forth, straightening out their music and getting settled.  One guy had sent his instrument in to be worked on and was trying to get used a spare one of the other guys let him borrow.

"I'da sent it in sooner," he said "But, I couldn't find a ten-foot box."

They all shook their heads in sympathetic agreement.

"Been there," one of them said.

"But then my wife said I might be able to close the bellows and use a smaller box," he said.

They all agreed what a smart and good woman his wife was.

I laughed out loud, never having encountered accordion comedy before.  Later one of them called it "bellows humor," which I again found very amusing.  They waved hello to me and asked me my name, one of them said he thought he remembered my older brother.  I sipped my coffee and smiled.

After a few more minutes, right at eight, the aged wizard punched out a three-four beat on his two cowbell and washboard kit and the accordions started a lovely German polka in three part harmony.  They were wonderful, joking and happily playing for their audience of one - and each other, I'd have to say.  They did standards and waltzes, all of which I knew.  They laughed back and forth, teased each other and were having a grand old time.

About ten minutes in, a group of what one might call "little old ladies" came in and got coffee and sat down to listen, groupies no doubt.  A little later a young woman who'd been at the counter with an eighteen month old little girl, came out to leave and, without missing a beat, the band segued into "The Chicken Dance" a sort of polka thing with choreographed hand and body chicken movements, with a fun little butt wiggle and... it's Cincinnati thing, you wouldn't understand.  She set the girl down and they did the dance, the choir of groupies did in their seats.  I tried as well, but I'm famously bad at it.  Every damn one of us were grinning like idiots.

It came out that they got together every Wednesday morning for what the banjo player, the straight man it turns out, called a "painfully public practice."  They called themselves the "Mason Mediocre Band" but that didn't get any search results, so, I think they were joshing.

I had to go, the truck was ready and I had stuff to do.  I thanked them and headed out and picked up my truck.  As I started it I thought, you know, what the hell, I'll go back for another cup of coffee and a bit more music.  I pulled in just after nine and, well, they were gone.  One of the guys had just finished putting his instrument in the trunk of his late model Buick and was on his way out.  I watched him as I parked.  If I hadn't of seen him I may have wondered if I'd made the whole thing up.  You still might be wondering...

I got to thinking as I drove home - as I'm wont to do - that maybe it's not time to put those old guitars up on a high shelf, and maybe it is time to open those boxes back up - time to uncase the lot.

Honestly, I'd never played and sang to be a big star someday.  I may have lied to myself about that, but... I just wanted to have some fun, accomplish something, impress a girl here and there and maybe a few guys as well along the line.  I've played my share of open stages and and hosted a few backyard and kitchen hootenannies in my day.  It was fun, it's been fun, it's still fun.  The wind, trees, ashes and dust have made a pretty fine audience as well, thank you very much.

I guess what it comes down to, in summary - finally, you might add - is that I'm glad I had a bad day yesterday, it made today that much sweeter.  In less than two hours I'd been reminded of why I do these things I do, reminded of the childlikeness I will not and should not put away.

There's more, there's always more.  Yesterday, Nick had an after school lesson on the bassoon (he plays oboe now), his first.  His dear music teacher let him bring home the instrument and he couldn't wait to get it out and play it for me.  I've had the fortune of hearing some bassoon in my life, a dear friend from a lifetime ago had a friend who still plays as a professional, she was a student at the time.  It's a beautiful and rich and soothing sound.  And as Nick played a low B-flat, it seemed to come floating back through some thirty-plus years of memory.

As he went to bed last night he laid back on his pillows and said, "I had a good day, Dad."

You know what, today, so have I.

Thanks for coming 'round.

Here's something from the backseat...

 "I like thunder and interventions."

Who doesn't...?


(Nick's playing the bassoon right now, I wish you could hear it, you know, to add some verisimilitude...  Lord knows, this piece could use some.)

Friday, September 1, 2017

"Ghost on the Car Radio" - Slaid Cleaves

I first heard Slaid Cleves on a local PBS station a number of years ago.  It was a song called "Quick as Dreams," a beautiful story of horses, friendship, loss, sadness and, perhaps, salvation.  I just remember the song ending and me saying to myself, I gotta learn that song.  Stop by the porch anytime the light's on, and I'll play it for you.

(I've been staring at this screen now for ten minutes, I even went up for a fresh cup of coffee, and I can't figure how to proceed - which is unlike me.  I usually just let the words and ideas take me where they will but, today my mind is taking me somewhere I don't really want to go, a place, a situation - I don't really understand - something I'd rather not admit.)

Here goes.

I listen to a lot of music these days.  I take nostalgic trips back to old tunes that shaped me and shake my head at some of the songs I thought were good realizing, well, otherwise.  I hear tunes, new and old, that I've not known.  I've been heavy into Bluegrass, Newgrass, Americana and Roots music.  I give some of the current pop stars a chance, to mixed results.  And, truth is, I do it all on Spotify.  There, I've said it.

We've got a paid subscription, and I think it's wonderful.  It rarely fails to come up with the song I want to hear, especially all my old favorites, and, through algorithms and computery-magic-computation stuff it gives me stations - pop country from the seventies, western swing, one based on the music of Guy Clark - and new music and hot hits and all that.  I come upon some great things I've never encountered, tunes and albums I would never hear otherwise.   I'd be lying if I didn't give the credit to Spotify for this renaissance I've been experiencing.

I know, I know... listening to music on Spotify is not how most artists want their music listened to.  A recent article in the Washington Post states that an artist gets seven dollars for every 1,000 plays - that's a lot of plays.

Oh, and it gets worse, and I'm going to help that along.  You see, I also listen to a lot of music on YouTube - or do I view it?  I like to take a look at the artist, get the vibe, see the instruments, and, confession time again, try to crib the chords from live performances.  And for every 1,000 plays on YouTube the artist - or performer or ham or scammer - gets exactly... a buck.

So, just to be clear, I'm using the least profitable platforms to listen to, share, and steal music from artists I very much like.

I'm an awful person, so, I'm going to link to YouTube videos in this post and direct you to Spotify (link) and generally do what most musicians probably hate... bother.

Well, now that that intro-interruptus has been endured, I'll continue my previously scheduled introduction.

After I learned that first song, I delved a little deeper into his music.  I listened to his older tunes, he's been at this a long time, and really got a taste for his style and all that.  And then, as will happen, I sort of set him aside and found new places to go.  But then, a few months back, I heard a new track of his on one of those personalized Spotify playlists, "Your Release Radar," I think it's called, and remembered what a profound singer-songwriter he is.

Folks recommend music to each other all the time, but what Ive noticed is that they don't always say why.  They'll say, This is the greatest Such-n-Such album ever!  And, I'll think well, I like Such-n-Such or I've never heard of Such-n-Such, I should give it a listen, but I'm never quite sure what I am listening for.

Also, I don't know what the fuck I'm talking about.  I'm not a musicologist.  Style confuses me,  terminology escapes me, and, honestly, I have trouble figuring out what the time signature is in most songs. I do know words and stories and that is what Slaid Cleaves does best for me.

Here's a link (I think it's the official one, but I like this one better) to the first song on the album - am I still allowed to say it that - 'album'?  It's called "Already Gone" (here, also, is a link to the lyrics of all the songs from his official site), and it's a perfect introduction to the melodic roads we are about to...

You know what?  I don't know how to do this... just bear with, if you don't mind.

The chorus to "Already Gone" is:

Time's running out and you can't help believing but
Here you are now at the end of the song
Down fall the tears when you hear the silence
When you finally know that you're already gone

I often feel I'm at the end of my song..  I'd guess we all do, sometimes.  In one of the verses he says ...May not have gotten all that I dreamed of / Pretty sure I got what I deserved.  Life's like that.  

I've driven across the country six or eight times in my life.  In later years, as I did it alone, this very thing happened:

Heard an old ghost on the car radio
Under a diamond sky
Sang along as the wheels beneath me rolled
Cast my troubles out into the night

He finishes the verse with Feel the weight lift up off my shoulders / Feel some kind of mercy in the wind.

He opens the song with Young love breaks like a wave on the shoreline / A rolling crash and it's gone  and ends with mercy in the wind, I can't think of a prettier pair of metaphors to bracket the span of adulthood. 

In "Drunken Barber's Hand" he says:

I don't need to read the papers
Or the tea leaves to understand
That this world's been shaved
By a drunken barber's hand

I kinda feel like that's all I really know about this song.  I suspect a few other things, but, as with all good poetry, my notion of a world shaved by a drunken barber's hand may be a lot different than yours.  I suppose it could be about environmental issues or some such thing, but, for me, it just means this world is a pretty messed up place and yet, here we are.

I rode ten thousand miles
On a carousel horse of wood
We end up where we started
Get right back on if we could

I know I would.

I thought "If I Had A Heart" was a really good song, but I was wrong... it's damn near perfect.  You see, I initially under judged it.  I didn't go where the song, I think, ultimately wants to lead me.  I thought the song was a love song, perhaps one about unrequited love between an older man and a young girl (maybe it is, I dunno, or, maybe worse, I'm the only one who thought that) but, after several listenings I finally got it.  It's not a love song, it is the love song - a song to a child, to a son.

Then you come around
With your soft young skin
With no idea what you're about to step in
And in these times you remind me
Of the man I used to be
If I had a heart, you'd be breaking it now

It's a song explaining the implicit difficulties and juxtapositions, the twists and turns of this thing we call life.  He starts the song with:

The more I see, the less I understand
The harder I work, the poorer I feel
The deeper the faith, the more I'm broken
The more I hear, the less it all seems real
And later sings:

You'll see truth, turned into lies
Light turned to dark, hearts broke in two
Just one thing, before I die
I want to make one lie come true

"... make one lie come true."  Man, ain't that the truth.

One of my favorite things about Slaid is his willingness to take me along with him, and here, in sort of the center of the album, he does just that. I feel like he's just driving me, us, around in an old seventy-four Pontiac and meeting some of the crowd.

In "Little Guys" we meet Butch and Evelyn's boy.  He's a nice guy, a good son, and he knows the truth about what he's seeing as his little town gets too big for it's britches.

Stop lights we had one, now there's four
And you can't see the shop from Main street anymore
There's a new H.E.B. 'cross town
But over here things are slowing down
As I turn out the lights, lock up my front door
Mom and pops like us don' t have a place in the world today
The little guy shops don' t stand a chance when the big guys start to play

He knows it ain't right.

But he also knows a deeper truth, I truth that he owns here:

Oil and grime in the pores of my skin
Think of all the brake dust I've been breathin' in
I got a stack of new regulations
And high tech specifications
I can't keep up, too old to go to school again

He speaks of joining the old men mornings at the coffee shop after he closes his own.  He pipe-dreams, Or I could set up the navigation / Head out and see the nation, but we all know he'll be turning wrenches at B & E Auto until he dies - that's what "little guys" do.

Now, we're leaning against that old Pontiac '74, painted "Primer Gray" with a new alternator and stock drivetrain.  Specifically, somebody's dad is telling us about his old car.  But, truly, it's every dad, lamenting, perhaps lost times and races, or, simply, the passage of time.  But, the passage of time yields wisdom and Everydad drops some.

'Cause you don't need that flash and shine
You just need to be hard off the line
So keep your lacquer chrome and flames
I'll paint mine primer gray

He knows me.  He says I know the things men hold inside, I understand what he means by thatHe knows I am, or was, one of the Kids today, they all want something more.  I'm the guy talking to his buddies down at Dickie's - I pulled the engine with a block and chain ? Got the oil pump in just before the rain - a triumph we all can dig.  I'm the boy under a ramped rear-end, marveling as his dad explains the mysteries of a clutch and transmission.  I am that dad, later, desperately trying to explain a lesson that takes so long to understand.

The final couplet of the song is:

It's what you do, not what you say
I'll paint mine primer gray

You know, I can only guess at what a songwriter means or where he found inspiration.  The process is emotional, fraught with errors and misunderstandings, and so very personal at both ends - the artist and the audience.  But, I wanna say that just the other day as I got ready to shave and was taking myself in, I saw my beard and my hair, my mustache and my eyebrows, and said aloud to mirror, "I guess I'll paint mine primer gray."

I've been neglecting the musicality of these songs, so far it seems like I'm talking about stories or poems.  As I said earlier I don't think I'd be good at that, talking music, but it doesn't mean I leave unexplored the melody and rhythm and key and such...

That's a lie, I totally leave it all alone, I don't notice it until I try to think about it.  "Primer Gray" made me feel melancholy, nostalgic, haunted.  I later noticed that it's also in "E", one of the most round and open and honest of keys, lending itself well to sevenths and minors and wispy slide guitar solos and...

I'm sorry, I don't seem to have the right nomenclature.

Or maybe I do.

The song "Hickory" did the same to me, the music waited in my periphery as I focused on the words.  But later, when I considered the chords and melody, phrasing and tonality (basically, when I was cribbing the song from videos so I could play it), I was flummoxed by the grace and beauty of the melody.  A melody simple, familiar, and true. Those beautiful whole and soft G, D, and C acoustic chords make the story so listenable.

In less polished hands "Hickory" could be sappy or sentimental, it is not.  It's a familiar story: a beautiful thing brought down in the sadness that is time and progress and the waiting for - and, perhaps, trusting in - redemption.  It wafts in on the wind, as though from across a parking lot, and compels you to lean into it.  It is confessional and private.  There is a moment in the song - a moment I will let you discover - that truly is breath-taking.  A moment you forgot to expect, that moment where the story tells itself.

Just take a look at this stanza:

Heard saws on the mountain, saw the trucks rumble by
Filing past like a funeral line
Those big iron trailers were piled up high
With hickory, walnut and pine

You can hear those saws, abrasive and raw; you can see them old diesel trucks, round and belching black exhaust, lumbering and growling on dirt roads and switchbacks; you can reach out and touch the bark of a newly felled tree, warm and moist from sun and sap, and then run your hand down the rusty, cold, and dry iron.

Really, give this song a listen, or stop by the porch when the light's on and I'll sing it for ya, hell, I can even play it in the dark.

I can't seem to shake my imaginary scene here in the parking lot of Dickie's Place.  Another guy - a friend of Butch's boy's, I imagine they played football together back in the day - opens his story, "Take Home Pay," with a couple solid electric chords and a quick bass riff that both floats and drives and these words:

Been hanging rock for twenty-odd years now
Six days a week and I can't keep up
My shoulder burns like a grinding gear box
These young crews are too fast and tough

I never hung sheet-rock, but my shoulders sure do burn from thirty-plus years of throwing boxes, trays of food, baby boys, and an occasional friend or foe on mine.  I've rarely been in "fast and tough" situations, but I've been passed up for younger folks.  I know not being able to keep up.

This is why I find his songwriting so rich and captivating.  In spelling out small details, using first person, shaping a particular scene, manipulating my senses, he paints universal themes.

That's what storytellers do.  He's telling us that in this chorus:

Schemers scheme around the edges
Dreamers dream of better days
Everyone knows what the catch is
It's all about the take home pay

The take home pay is what we get in the end, severance for our pain; sometimes it is money, sometimes it's just getting through another damn day - and sometimes it's poetry and magic.

Well, you know what, we've been standing in this parking lot for a while now, let's go have one last round inside with "The Old Guard".

Dickie's Place is a tavern where I often go
Like tonight when this heart of mine is achin' low
Through swinging doors I hear the voice of old George Jones
I find myself a bar stool and I'm right at home

Damn, I'm pretty sure I've been here before.  In fact, I may have tended bar here.  Familiar faces, old friends, lots of beer, memories, stories...

The old guard down at Dickie's drinks up all night long
Every face, lined and weary, hides a country song
Ruined lives, broken dreams, countless cold regrets
On the jukebox, their stories told in silhouette

Cheatin' Hearts, Crazy Arms, now it's Crying Time
Heartbreak goes down easier with beer and rhyme
Every night we get together to be with our own
And the old guard feels a little less alone

The songwriting is so clever here.  The sound and mix echoes out of the seventies country scene, with a little western swing and catchy guitar hook that makes you smile every time.

I was dozens of times into listening to this song before I actually looked at the lyrics, and then I saw it.  I was so mesmerized by the ease of the lyrics, the poetry of them, I didn't hear it at first, didn't make the connection.  The line right after, Heartbreak goes down easier with beer and rhyme, so captured my attention with its insight and universality that I missed the specifics.

"Cheating Hearts" and "Crazy Arms" and Crying Time" are all titles of songs from the era he's hankering back to, the titles of the songs on the jukebox.  Just brilliant.

In the song, the Old Guard sit and shoot the shit and listen to some old George Jones, or maybe some Dolly or Waylon or Price.  A younger crowd, the Young Guard perhaps, comes in. Then some kids they start playin' their fast modern tunes / And the floor bounces when they dance around the room.  But one of the old dudes says he's had enough and 

He starts punching in the numbers of the ones we feel
Those old heart-breakin' melodies with cryin' steel
The young ones start leaving, it's too slow and hard
But they'll be back when it's their turn to join the guard



 "... a carousel of horse and wood."

It's time to get going, time to leave my new, old friends.  Slaid has something else to tell me, but it's personal, not the stuff for crowds.

Sometimes it's the shape of a song, the structure of the thing, that captures my attention.  "So Good to Me" has verses, what appears to be a chorus, and what seems like a couple of bridges.  It's starts all jangly and open, and then it saddens,  The harmonies are different, the mood changes... and then it comes back around and then somehow mixes the two and fades.

This song sounds to me like the wedding renewal vows of a really cool dude to his extraordinary wife.

With the world so cold outside
You'd be always on my side
If I stumbled blindly you could make me see
Through thick and thin you stayed
All through my darkest days
How could you possibly be so good to me

A long relationship is often a cyclical and seasonal, and he lays that out so honestly, heart wide open.

Times were tough but we were tougher
Slings and arrows we did suffer
Scars, we've got a few, but who has not
Words of love and words of anger
Times of peace and times of danger
Never take for granted what we've got

Yeah, that about covers it, doesn't it?

Men - well, the kind of men I like and respect - apologize in whispers and love quietly.  Slaid does that in "To Be Held."  It's a private song with haunting harmonies and floating guitar, and it is aimed directly at not me.  But there it is, on an album, it must be for me as well.  And... it is.  Why?

You're not asking for diamonds
You don't want furs
You don't dream of silver and gold
All you're asking is to be cherished
To be held and to hold

I needed to hear that.

And this.

I walk around blindly
I bumble along
In my heart I know that I'm wrong
It's a cold consolation:
I'm sorry again
One more time the same story told
And all that you want is a chance to get closer
To be held and to hold

It is easy to let this all fall into an apologetic hug, but I think it is more.  I hold my sons and my wife and my family inside me.  When you hold someone, even those miles or lifetimes away, you regard them, you honor them, you raise them up and show them about in wonder and thanksgiving.  And, of course, the inverse is true.  When we know we are being held, we feel lifted, sacred.  Sunsets are prettier, stars are brighter, greens greener, happiness, well, happier.

Holding is the hard work love asks of us.  It is Hope.

To be held is Hope's reward.  It is Grace.

I suspect there is more to "Still Be Mine" than I know.  I'm cool with that, I'm not sure what most of the music in the seventies was about.  Sometimes a mood or phrase or piano riff can be enough.  Perhaps a certain phrase wallops you upside the head, say, like...

I won't ask more questions
I'm old enough to know there is no remedy
Could I ask one favor:
Would you try to hold on to what's left of me?
Forget the rest of me, and all you thought I'd be

Am I sure what this means?  No, not at all, but I know what it's like to hope that someone is willing to "try to hold on to what's left of me."  We all need and deserve that.

"Junkyard" is just a simple song, a plaintive fingered guitar, an easy melody, but it equals, somehow, the whole of the rest of the album.  He's opened the album with upbeat waves breaking like young love on the shoreline and closes it with one last trip to the junkyard.  It's been a journey, but it ain't over, it'll circle back.

I choked back a sob the first time I heard this tune.  Not just because it hurt me, but because it lifted me.

Oh, I'm headed out to the junkyard
On the lonely side of town
This time it's a one way trip boys
I won't be coming back round

And it's one last time to the junkyard
I've swapped out my share of parts
From fenders and alternators
To shoulders, knees and hearts

The doctors and the mechanics
Have done all they can do
With hammer, wrench and scalpel
Ball joint, valve and screw

It's time to throw in the towel
Some breakdowns you cannot mend
Like all that have come before us
We all must face the end

So I'm limping back to the junkyard
In cloud of smoke and dust
I won't be driving out this time
Gonna lay me down to rust

Gonna leave this old shell behind now
Set our spirits free
Gonna walk on out to glory
Sun setting down on me

I've pulled my own parts at the junkyard on the lonely side of town... it's still there, way out in Cleves, which is a nice poetic twist, I think.  I've had scalpels cut me wide.  I've felt like I'm "Gonna lay me down to rust" and "walk on out to glory."  Truly, sometimes it's hard not to feel done...  especially as you feel that dust and rust and wear and tear of age.  Man, I get what he's laying down here.

And, that's what lifts me, knowing another human, another man, another brother, a dude I like and respect, feels the same way... it helps.  I think Slaid knows that, I think he's known it all along.  So many of the songs in this collection could seem sad, even bitter, but they don't.  Everyone's gonna be alright; endings will begin; beginnings always end.

All through this album I've felt spun, gently, as in a quiet eddy.  I've started here, gone way over there, and ended back here.  I walked a timeline that seems to constantly fall into itself.  I've loved through heartbreak, hoped through through breakdown, I've celebrated through sorrow.

And... that's a good thing.

It's impossible to fathom how many kinds of wrong I probably am in my assessment of this album.  And yet, I'm gonna plow on.  Themes of passing time, long relationships, bittersweet memories, aging and restoration run through it all, but...  am I allowed to even do that, tell you his themes?  Maybe not, and maybe that makes things easier.

I can tell you that I heard those themes.  I can tell you that this album lingered and echoed in my head long after my little Bose speaker ran out of juice.  I can tell you that I needed to meet these people, hear their songs, celebrate their stories.  I can tell you I needed to think about time and seasons and circles and such.

Finally, I needed to think about redemption.  I used the word restoration a bit ago because I thought it was clever and hearkened back to old '74's and junkyards and shoulders - but, I meant redemption.  Redemption is restorative.  I said once in this post that "It is not the “redeemed one” that’s important, it’s that there is a redemption song."

I want to thank Slaid Cleves for singing his to me.

And (if in my mind only), that circles me back to where I started - you remember, feeling guilty about how I behave as a music listener.  I feel like I don't support my favorite artists in a way that leads to their financial success.  He doesn't tour close to here in the near future.  I suppose I could buy a shirt or something, or just send him a twenty.  But I don't need an album or a CD or a digital download - although I would, actually, really dig a shirt.  I like listening to him on Spotify.  It's easy and simple and affordable.  I'm glad there are videos of him on YouTube and the like.

So, what's a guy to do?  Well, I wrote this exceedingly long post in a way to offer my support in another way.  I want him to know he touched me, and I want you to know why.  I suspect he already does.  You don't write songs like these and not know you're going to move folks.  I wanted him to know that he reminded me what a great medium that old-fashioned, set aside, album/record/LP was... is.  He brought back old friends and good times and broken hearts and bright yesterdays.  I want him to know that he did, for me, what an artist is supposed to do.

I owe ya, dude.

You know, when I was a kid we'd actually carry albums around.  You might take the newest Stones or John Denver over to you friends house or carry a stack of good dance music or rock-n-roll to a party over off Court street.  Your girl, or that glam rocker from second period math, might make you suffer through something you didn't like.  We'd all poor over the liner notes and cover art like it was scripture.  We were compelled to both share it with others and hold it in our own hands...  that's what I've tried to do here.

To be held and to hold...

Thanks for staying around.  It was fun.  Stop by when you can, I'm learnin' a couple more...


(I don't usually add anything to a post after I've published it, short of a blatant spelling or grammatical errors, I usually just leave it, but something happened that I think merits attention.)

I wrote above of the artist/audience relationship and said:  "I want him to know that he did, for me, what an artist is supposed to do."

I wrote a note to Slaid on his website, he's got an "Ask Slaid"  widget and just told him a wrote about his album.  Well he took the time to do two things, first he responded positively to what I laid down, which I thought was damn decent of him,  

"Goddamn, Bill, that might be my favorite review of all time. Nail on the head. You do a lovely job expressing the effect the music has on you; no need to apologize for lack of professional training or anything like that. (And you'd be surprised how many published reviews misquote the lyrics.) Thanks for letting me know that I'm doing the job I set out to do."

... the job he set out to do, that really touched me because he got what I was trying to do.

He also did what I think any of the characters in his songs would do, made sure to thank and acknowledge the folks that made this all happen.

"One caveat: I had a lot of help in writing and producing this album. Co-writers Rod Picott, Nathan Hamilton, Karen Poston, Mike Morgan, Jeff Elliott, Graham Weber, with Scrappy Jud Newcomb producing."

Seems like just the thing Butch and Evelyn's boy would do... 

Slaid Cleaves is the real deal, friends; he's honest and real and earthy and decent and right.  I wish he lived next door, and had a nice porch...

Peace, again.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Mine, Yours, Theirs... Who Knows?

It's easy to compare - and easier to contrast - our childhoods to those of our children.  On the surface it all seems so disparate.

There's the classic music argument, but, you know, I never really thought "my" music, whatever that might mean, was any better than my parents.  Belafonte, Mel Torme, The Kingston Trio, Burl Ives and so many more, will forever hold up against Jethro Tull, The Rolling Stones, John Denver and will always beat The BeeGees.  The truth is, I like today's pop music enough - Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, The Lumineers, Train, Saint Motel - it's all quite listenable.  Is it over-produced?  Yes, but so were The Police.  Do I hate auto-tune?  Yes, with the same hatred I had for Disco, but, I've heard a lot of that, too, and it didn't hurt me.

Somewhere in the mid-seventies I got the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar.  Jesus, I loved that LP.  I played it all the time, wrote down the lyrics, starting and stopping the turntable - probably ruining the vinyl -and singing along like a rock star.  If you were to go upstairs right now and ask the boys what they wanted to listen to, I guarantee they'd answer "Hamilton!"  I gotta admit, when I first heard it I was offput, the rapping, the modernity, the f-bombs and salaciousness - it seemed too much for my tender "1776" ears.  Now, after a dozen or more times listening through the whole show, well, I think it's about the best thing I've heard this century.  We've even checked out the book about the musical from the library.  Is it better than "Superstar"?

You know, that's where it gets tricky.  The defiant teen that still sleeps in the basement of my psyche might scream, "Hell, no!"  The rock-and-roll-ness of "Superstar" juxtaposed to the Christian subject matter really blew my mind back then.  But, you know what? the historical story that "Hamilton" tells, set to rap and funk with real language and astonishing rhymes, yeah, pretty cool. too.

So, maybe it's not the music, it's what the music does for us, them, did me, then.  That record, spinning on my portable turntable on an unmade bed, opened my mind up.  Learning the words, singing along, imagining what part I might have, wondering how Mary could seem so hot, all of it sent my mind further down the road of understanding.  For the boys, hearing it on the CD from the library, watching vids on YouTube that had the words, listening to the whole soundtrack on long rides because Marci bought it, rapping out the songs on the playground with their friends, well, I think the experience has shown them that same road - the "there's-so-much-more" road that surprises us all over and over in our lives.

(Also, it is so damned cute to see them singing those difficult lyrics, smirking at the cuss words, nailing the rhymes and keeping up with the difficult and foreign style.)

The other big discussion is, of course, technologies.  I watched my share of television as a kid, but, it was hardly edifying.  I'd've killed for even the worst of today's Disney programming back then.  What I saw was weird kid's shows - I'm looking at you Uncle Al - and creepy puppet shows and bad B movies or good movies cut to shreds hosted by drunken dudes dressed as werewolves.  I even thought Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Greenjeans were sort of, well, strange.  I think the boys have it better.  They'll watch whole seasons of old shows on Netflix, every Animaniacs, every Loony Tunes, old and new Bill Nye, documentaries on the brain and optical illusions - all, commercial free.  Honestly, I think they have me beat there.

The boys don't play a lot of console games, we have a Wii but it hardly ever gets played anymore.  They do play some "RPG" games on their computers or Kindles.  They play one called "Grail" and another called "Wizard 101."  They get really involved in them sometimes.  They play for hours and have nonsensical conversations that would rival any Ionesco play.  At times I get frustrated with them, I feel they are wasting time and money and brain cells on them.  I'm wrong, of course, to judge them because of one simple truth: I'd have killed to have a game like that when I was their age.  Fact.  I spent a summer playing Cribbage and "Battling Tops," both of which are rather boring and monotonous.  I can't imagine how much fun I would've found the games they spend hours on.

There are more things to come, smart-phones come to mind, texting, face-timing, game playing, study groups... and worse things I suspect.  But, is texting your girl any different than stretching the ultra-long cord from the kitchen and sitting on the basement steps and talking with your girl?  I doubt it.  Is not turning in your homework because you forgot the assignment better than getting into a Google chat with your classmates and doing it all together and wise-cracking as you did?  I doubt it.  Back in the mid-seventies we had a blizzard that effectively isolated us in our country home for over a week.  My brothers were away in college and I didn't have anything to do.  I'd traipse on over to my friend JB's house and we'd sit in his sixty-something Ford Falcon and smoke cigarettes, but, as I recall, that was about the only peer connection I had the whole time, I'm pretty sure the phone lines were down.  Would I have liked an opportunity to face-time and goof around with Dave and Bruce and Don or Lisa or Polly?  You bet I would've.

What other examples are there of this disparity of childhoods?  Here's one I've given some thought to: sports.  Although I did play organized Pee-Wee football - Pop Warner, for the informed - the vast majority of the sports we played were backyard pick-up games.  Baseball, some basketball, lots of football, a bit of volleyball - which as I recall segued into several months of badminton - an occasional game of soccer, for which we used a kickball, and some kickball, no doubt using a soccer ball, but I don't remember seeing a soccer ball until I got to college.

"Good for you," you may be saying.  Yes, uhm, but...  I think that's sort of a myth, "The Sandlot" and a few other movies, our own propensity to spin the details of youth into an often false utopia, that innate belief that all was right as a child, turn those games into movies themselves.  The real truth is that they were chaotic, there was lots of yelling and taunting and saying cruel things about each other, there were fights and constant arguments about rules and in-bounds and "do-overs" and "interference."  Playing football, tackle, believe it our not, we were reckless, bloodying our noses, cauliflowering our ears and blacking our eyes to the point where I'm surprised our parents were never questioned about our home life.

Baseball was a mess.  We never had enough kids so we let the littlest run bases and stand in the outfield.  Of course there was never an umpire unless someone's Dad sat on a Coleman cooler calling arbitrary strikes and balls, sipping a Miller Highlife - hence the cooler - and warning us that if one of us spilled his bottle he'd kick our asses.  There were rarely more than two baseballs and, honestly, fewer bats.  When we didn't have an ump or enough players, we'd have a designated pitcher, who called his own strikes, pitch to both teams.  We had no idea how to hold the bat or catch a grounder, it's not like we had any guidance or supervision, we were too afraid to spill Mike's dad's beer to approach him.  We'd call a fly into right an "automatic out" and we'd have the dreaded and confoundingly stupid "ghost runners" all over the damn field.  This, as in football, resulted in arguments, shoving matches and someone taking their ball and going home.

It all seems like fun in retrospect, but, honestly, it wasn't always.  Another thing that never seems to come up when grown folks wax poetic about their collective, superlative childhoods is "picking sides."  Some of the scenes in "Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe" are less harrowing and dramatic than those that develop as thirteen or fifteen (always an uneven number) kids, almost always boys in my experience, chose sides.  First someone has to be a "captain," the chooser, actually, two of them.  In an ideal world, these are popular, cool dudes with fair and honest hearts.  In reality, they were often the bullies, or the older guys, or the strongest, or whoever's ball or net or bat it was.  Now, the captains choose from a line of boys, all hoping to not get on the dick's team.  Friendships are betrayed.  Chubby and runty kids are chosen last.  "First-picks" go fast and "mid-picks" look eager and athletic and loyal.  Last minute trades to even things out are discussed but never acted upon.  One poor kid is left standing, sometimes me, wondering how things will work out.  "Well, I guess I'll take little Billy Peebles," and I try not to be noticed as I walk towards my brother's team.

It all sounds silly looking back on it, I mean how hard could it have been?  I know feelings were hurt, I can still see the disappointed faces on the boys I was choosing from when I finally stepped into the role of Captain.  I know I betrayed a friend or two choosing a better athlete over my lifelong friend, JB, or picking someone I thought was "cool" but was, looking back, a dick.  I know bodies were hurt, bruises, scrapes, a broken bone or two and probably uncountable concussions.  I also know it was often tense.  Was Wayne gonna punch somebody?  Would the big guys come again and take over the field?  Would darkness fall before the game was finished?  Would I get hurt?  Picked last?  Lose?  Get blood on my pants?

N & Z play "rec" ball - baseball, soccer and basketball.  There are refs and umps, the teams are chosen by committee in an attempt at fairness.  Qualified and dedicated coaches are on hand to show proper technique, offer support and act as role models.  Fights don't break out, there are plenty of balls and, well, hearts don't get broken.  I like to think I enjoyed the wildness of those backyard games, that I understand life's unfairness a bit more, that I learned about friendship and loyalty.  Yeah, maybe so...

Honestly, I'd have rather played rec ball.  It looks like fun.

Listen, I can only speak to my own childhood, as you can only speak to yours.  I think these memories of it are intensely private.  There are memoirists and novelists, songwriters and such who are brave enough to shine a light on theirs, but, my experience has been that people are reluctant to talk a lot about it, especially as it gets further and further away.  And, as it drifts further from now, the edges soften, the details obscure and the lessons transform.

There is song title that flits around in my mind from an album by Jethro Tull released in the early seventies: "Life's a Long Song."  The rest of the lyrics are, well, a bit uninspired, but that title - the refrain of the song - is worth remembering.  Life is a long song.  Childhood is long, careers are long, days are long, as are some years.

I recently heard a saying - I think I've mentioned it here before - "mine is not a failed attempt at yours."  I wish more folks would try the remember that.  I also think the inverse is true, just switch the  mine and yours.   Basically, my childhood and the boys' is the same childhood.  I also don't think you can "call" your childhood - label it good or bad, fruitful, lazy, whatever - because, even as it seems fixed in time, the way you see it is practically lunar or tidal - ebbing, waxing, waning, sometimes there, bright and strong, other times so far out on the horizon it seems nearly gone.  I don't think it is fair to tell someone how to fill their life, that's their hand to play.  You can't manipulate memory or set a lesson in stone.

Time changes everything isn't the lesson in stone, perspective changes everything, might be.

There is a lot of time in a lifetime, I am always astounded at how many lives I seem to have had.

There is a lot of time in a childhood.  Hours to be filled.  

I filled mine my way... and, they're doing a perfect job filling theirs.

Filling theirs with cutting meat for home-made Big Macs.

Or fidget spinning in a class shirt you designed for "field day."

Or taking a selfie with your dad.

Or learning "Hedwig's Theme" on a flute

Or, playing in a sandpit on your "first-cousin-once-removed"'s farm - God I hate the nomenclature for close family, someone should work on that.  (As an aside here, I grew up near sand and gravel pits so, seeing them jumping off and scrambling up one 800 hundred miles and forty-five years removed, was a bit odd - one of those moments when it all gets jumbled in my head.)

Or they might spend their time behind nice chain-link fences, throwing a few long balls...

...or  walking to a dugout...

... or being the battery as a fastball flies between hand and glove on an unforgettable midwest midday.

Or maybe they'll fill a couple of hours pranking me while I'm getting new tires for the camper, cutting paper and drawing smiley-faces and taping them onto every single thing in the refrigerator and freezer - a story I will guess will be told for a long time:

Well, I suppose I've taken enough of your time.  Thanks for stopping by, I know it's been a while since my porch-light's been lit.  I appreciate you looking out for it.

As always, Peace.

I touch on this theme frequently around here, this "whose childhood is whose" thing.  In "Esta La Luna" things get all jumbled around and in Closeted Memories I mention the gravel pits of my youth and how I filled some hours as a kid.

(Here's a link to that Tull tune, if your interested, it's actually a pretty good song.)

Friday, May 12, 2017

Newest Post

Nick drew this picture for the front of his Language Arts folder:

 It's the species Triazureoculuspurpuraparvuaspirinentor.  Latin - maybe - for "threedarkblueeyepurplesmallbreathefire."  He nailed the spelling, don'tcha think?

Here's the front of one of his other folders.

Yeah... he got 'bell' right.

From Marci's "... things you don't expect to hear from the backseat ..."

Dad: "Do you realize that you two have been improving* this whole time?"

Zack: "Be quiet, Dad. You're breaking the fourth wall."


I didn't even know they​ knew what the fourth wall is, hell, I barely do...

Peace, as always.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The What For

Three times in twenty-four hours, I was asked the same question - nearly the same phrasing.  Each time, the answer got more complicated.  At least I think it did, I'll let you judge for yourself.

"What's this even for?" Nick asked me this one evening as he was looking for a ping-pong ball near the dryer.  I looked his way and he was holding up a spent dryer sheet.  Now, if you didn't know what one was, I could see how it might confuse.  Is it a really lame piece of paper?  Why does it have a slight scent?  What on earth could one do with it?  I'd imagine these same questions coming to the mind of a future anthropologist several hundred years out as he finds them by the thousands in an old dump.

I explained what they were to Nick, which turned out to take longer than one might expect.  I showed him a fresh one, hit on some properties of static electricity, shamed myself to him by explaining they had a lot of chemicals in them - though I use the unscented ones - and weren't really necessary and that they basically just coated the fabric to make it feel softer and that one shouldn't use them on towels.

We all basically know the nature of this question in this context.  You've been there, holding up a leftover lock washer, bolt or even more curiously shaped part, fixing or assembling mowers or grills or bongs.  It's wondering about that toggle switch or a slider on a sound board.  It's wondering what an emoticon is or what the actual hell that icon is supposed to represent.  You say it to yourself as your bumbling about a word processing program to change your indent and you see all this stuff you can do that is way beyond my skill level.

The thing is, it is an answerable question.  Just because you don't know the answer, doesn't mean there isn't one.  You didn't follow the instructions.  You didn't look it up or haven't been taught something but the answer is available.  You were buzzed or...

Let's move on.

My buddy Kirby sent me the lyrics and simple tune to a song he'd been working on.  He plays a baritone ukulele and sang it like an old Irish ballad.  We had a nice long discussion about it and he asked me to do, like, a cover of it.  I changed the words a little, fleshed out the tune and taped myself doing it on my phone.

Here's a link to it if you're curious:

Somewhere in this exchange, he asked me "What's this for?"  It was a good damned question.

He was wondering about the endgame.  Would this lead to a final recording?  Was this just a lark?  Was it a song we might play regularly?  Were we just goofin'?  What was my level of commitment?  All necessary questions when considering what to do next with something.

My answer, which was understandably frustrating to him - and is, frankly, not a very good one - was: "This."

Yeah...  I'm like that.

(The boys aren't allowed to say the word "stuff" in their Science teacher's classroom and I think he has a problem with "thing" as well.  I wouldn't last long.)

Here's the thing, sometimes stuff is hard to explain.

By 'this' I meant the very exchange we were having.  For a couple of guys who had to call each other after midnight because it was cheaper then and exchanged cassette tapes for years to be talking about wave-files and digital algorithms is a moment to acknowledge.  We were collaborating, which I think is a basic human need.  We were laughing and teasing and thinking and creating.  "This."

But there's more to that this.

Our journey has been a similar one, his and mine, except for one major deviation - I had kids and he did not.  We've not spent a lot of time talking about the boys.  I share a baseball victory or a band concert now and again.  Maybe a cute story about their cleverness or stupidity or silliness, but, I try to not make it the focus of our conversations.  We've plenty of other things to talk about (sorry Mr. F.).

Would you mind an aside?

Thanks.  There's a delicate balance that must be respected between those with and without children.  I've many friends who are not parents and many of them have been annoyed by the notion that you haven't really lived until you have children, or that everything changes, or that it is something that simply must be experienced. 

Yeah, bullshit.  My friend Terri (remember the names are all changed around here, unless they're not) is a talented and successful ceramic artist.  She and I had a discussion about all this at a bar one night.  Another acquaintance, a dad, had been spouting off said bullshit and then had wondered off.  I told Terri that not all parents feel that way.  We laughed when I said something about how a lot of parents are in the opposite position, thinking the higher plane might be childlessness, and that I certainly had my moments like that.  It was a longish conversation, but my point was, and still remains, that hers and mine is a parallel experience, that her life was certainly not a failed attempt at mine, nor vice-versa.  Her inner journey as an artist, a creator, is just as important as mine as a parent, a creator.  It's about depth of understanding, it's about joy, love, inner peace, spirituality, Faith.  It's about work and desire and doing the next right thing.  However, you get to these places doesn't matter... getting there does.  Get it?

End aside.

As I was saying, we don't talk about the boys much, but he wrote a song of great tenderness, a prayer almost, a blessing.  He'd never said as much before, but from what he decided to tell me in this song, I learned that he thought about it, considered my road, considered the road of these young men coming up.  It means a lot to me.  That I guess is another thing I meant by my this.

As many of you know, I get the past and the present and, increasingly, the future all tied up in a big Gordian Knot in my mind.  I try not to let it bother me but it does incline me to look at things (boy, I do that a lot, damn you Mr. F.), well, longer.

Think about this, nearly forty years of shared experiences, a stray significant anomaly - the twins - and a song that floats up out of it all that speaks to a hope for the future?  Yes, that's the this I mean.  The neverending and neverbeginning now is deucedly complex but speaks to me, and you, I hope, so profoundly.

Oh, I hate when I get caught up in these time paradoxes.

So, the last time I heard the question was in a different context.  My friend Brian (remember the names don't matter) and I were talking over coffee.  We are both the same age, latish-fifties, and both have children.  We met in college some thirty-five years ago.  We've, well, lived life.  Though divergent paths, both have been rocky, twisted, rough and long; and both have been beautiful, joyful and rewarding.  We are both men of Faith and we talk about that a lot.

We were discussing Fr. Richard Rohr's book, Falling Upward, which delves into the faith journey and how it changes as we approach and begin our lives in what I like to call "elderhood."  We spoke of leaving our warrior selves behind, filling and emptying and protecting our vessels - our souls - and marveled at our profound lack of understanding faith and Catholicism and energy and eternity.  We shrug our shoulders a lot when we talk.

I shared my reluctance to tell people an absolute in my life that folks just don't seem to want to hear: I have no regrets.  People take offense at that, perhaps because so many embrace the burden of regret.  They say, 'what about smoking, surely you regret that?'  Yeah, it seems like I should, but... I don't.  I have too many fond memories of cigarettes and the people I smoked them with to wish it all away with a regret.  'What about that move you made or that girl you dated or that shitty Toyota you had or...'  Stop.  Too many lessons, too much insight, too much growth, came out of all that to say I regret any of it.

Brian said that more than once he'd benefited from an oddly specific lesson he'd learned from what may, at the time, have seemed a regrettable situation.  A horrible, rainy, very-bad, camping trip that taught him to build and tend a fire in the rain and, years later, a Boy Scout Jamboree where he used those skills to save a troop of boys from a very-bad and cold night.  It happens all the time to me as well.

He said he looks at setbacks and disappointment and confusion and hears his mind asking a simple question, "What is this for?"

It helps, I think, to ask that of the cosmos, or the Holy Spirit, how ever you might see it.  I do the same thing, perhaps you do as well.  It's in the wail of "Why is this happening?" or in the confusion of the question, "What am I supposed to learn here?" or in the feeling of heartbreak I hear in my own head, "What am I missing?"

Unlike the first two instances, this 'whatfor,' if you will, is, in the moment, unanswerable.  It is not rhetorical, there is no pat answer. In a way, I think when you ask the question it is a prayer, a prayer for understanding, clarity, peace, a prayer that goes out and remains unaddressed, impotent, untended.  But it echoes in us, in time, in the corridors of memory and can, at any time, be suddenly, surprisingly, well... answered.

It happens to me all the time.

In fact, it's happening right now, my now, yours and another now way down the road.

I should just say peace out and end it right here, shouldn't I?

Well, I can't say I'm gonna do that.

There's a lilac bush outside the garage, I've mentioned it before.  I just went out to get the mail and it is nearly in full bloom.

I planted the bush a dozen or more years ago, it was, frankly, a little runt of a thing and I didn't feel much confidence for its future.  I probably asked myself 'what for' as I dug and watered and tended it for all these years.  I've marveled at the beauty of it, the science, the botany, all that.  It was years before it bloomed and it did poorly for a while.  I wondered 'what for' about that old dwarf lilac more than once, I'd admit.

This morning, on our way out to the bus, I turned back because Nick was lagging and saw him hugging the lilac bush, face buried in the blooms, and, through the purple blossoms, I heard a muffled prayer, an answer, "God, it smells like life!"

And, that's the what for.

Peace and thanks for sticking with me, I appreciate it.

My friend Terri is indeed a real person and she is a beautiful artist and soul.  You can check out her FB page here, her work is lovely.